Hospice Girl Friday | ‘Receiving Thanks’

Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” —William Arthur Ward

My hospice has its own wing in a building that also houses a large nursing home facility. Volunteers sit at a desk near the entrance to the unit and are the first point of contact for people who call or visit patients.

At the beginning of my shift on the day after Valentine’s Day a man walked in gripping a small bunch of long-stem yellow and red roses. He was probably in his late 60s, was heavy set, bald, and wore dress slacks and a sport coat. The flowers were wrapped in a wet paper towel and looked like he randomly pulled them from a larger arrangement. Instead of stopping at my desk or pausing to say hello, he walked to the back of the unit where the nurses and chaplain were eating lunch around one of the tables in the living room area. I watched the man hand the roses to one of the nurses.

“Thank you for taking care of my brother,” he said, putting the flowers on the table. Then he turned and hurried back toward the door. “It was a pleasure doing business with you,” he said over his shoulder. As he passed me, he pulled a white handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and dabbed his eyes.

I stood up and walked over to the nurse to ask her about what just happened.

“ ‘It was a pleasure doing business with you’? Who was that?”

“That was Mr. Jakes’* brother,” she said.

I remembered Mr. Jakes from the previous week. Brain cancer.

The nurse continued. “He flew in from Chicago the day before Mr. Jakes died. He wasn’t very nice to me, and I don’t really want these flowers,” she said, stabbing at her salad with her fork. “I think he feels badly about being so rude.”

“Maybe he does. And maybe he truly is grateful for the way you took such good care of Mr. Jakes. After all, he didn’t have to come back in,” I said.

“Fair enough,” she said. But I could tell she didn’t want to continue the conversation so I went back to my desk. Five minutes later, another man walked in. He was around 40 years old, tall, broad-shouldered, and he wore blue jeans, a ball cap, and work boots. His green sweatshirt had a ‘Johnson’s Florist’ logo over his heart. I’m used to signing for flowers, but he wasn’t carrying any.

“Hi, there. How can I help you?” I said.

He took off his hat, walked up to me and introduced himself. “Good afternoon. My name is Mike, and I’ve brought over some roses for the staff of the home and hospice. I left them by the main entrance and wanted to let you know before they’re all gone.”

“That is so sweet,” I said. “I’ll tell the nurses. I’m not staff. I’m just a volunteer.”

“You be sure to get some too. There’s plenty for everybody.”

“Are these leftover from yesterday?” I asked.

“Yes ma’am. And we want to share them with the staff here.”

Just then both of the nurses on shift walked over. I introduced them to Mike. After saying hello, he took a long look around and said, “My mom was in this hospice and everyone was so nice to her and my family. I’ve never forgotten it.”

“When was she here?” one of the nurses asked.

“Oh a long time ago. She’s been gone 25 years now.” Then he told us again where the roses were and left. The nurses followed him out and a few moments later came back in, each carrying a vase bulging with a dozen long-stem red roses.

I’ve always found Valentine’s Day too commercial, and long ago I asked my husband not to buy flowers for me. I wouldn’t appreciate the gesture, as roses seem like a waste of money, especially since they don’t last more than a day or two before drooping over with broken necks. But Mike came in again, and this time he was carrying an open box of long-stem roses that looked like they were made of dark crimson velvet. Each one was nearly the size of a tennis ball. I started to reconsider my position.

Mike handed me the box. “I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to leave your post,” he said, “so I brought you these. Please take them home and enjoy them, and thank you for everything you do here.”

“Thank you, Mike. They’re beautiful,” I said, looking at the bouquet and feeling like had I just won the Miss America pageant.

When I got home I put the flowers in the biggest vase I could find and set it in the middle of my kitchen table where they bloomed and thrived for almost two weeks. I used to think that the main focus of hospice was the patient, but those roses reminded me that the family members and caregivers also benefit, so much so that they come back to say thank you. Sometimes, as with Mike, they come back years later. And sometimes, as with Mr. Jakes, the thank you is clunky and possibly a veiled apology. But in each case they make sure they delivered a message of gratitude to the hospice staff and volunteers.

*Names have been changed to protect patient privacy

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Bonus: For more on end of life care from a physician’s perspective, see How Doctors Die from our March/April 2013 issue.